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Rhode Island’s Incoming U.S. Attorney Promises ‘Apolitical’ Office

Given the unique, natural resources that Rhode Island has to offer, and the importance of those resources within the state, it’s helpful every so often to remind people that the U.S. Attorney’s Office, along with the state Attorney General’s Office and the EPA on the federal side, all together play an active role in protecting those resources.

Robert C. Corrente admits he may be a bit of an “unknown quantity” to his new colleagues, but for Rhode Island’s incoming U.S. attorney, the courtroom is familiar territory.

A frequent presence in federal and state tribunals over the last 23 years, it was in the arena of business litigation that Corrente, 47, acquired the “stellar reputation” and trial skills cited by Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee when he nominated the Providence attorney to the position.

Having concentrated on complex issues of commercial litigation, securities fraud and shareholder fights, Corrente, who practiced at Providence, R.I.-based Hinckley Allen & Snyder, promises to bring the focus of an “all-out” trial lawyer to the mission of the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

The former chairman of the state Supreme Court Ethics Advisory Panel and Judicial Nominating Commission also vows to do so “within the bounds of all applicable ethical rules and within the bounds of good judgment,” but – in a state with a “sordid history” of public corruption – without regard to any political interests.

Corrente spoke to Lawyers Weekly’s Lisa Bruno about his priorities as U.S. attorney and about some of the fallout from the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Blakely v. Washington.

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New England In-House: Your first week on the job was marked by the USAO’s victory in former Providence Mayor Vincent A. Cianci Jr.’s unsuccessful appeal of his conviction on racketeering conspiracy charges. However, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declined to rule on the challenge to the sentence brought under the Blakely decision …

Corrente: As you know, Blakely has touched off a firestorm in the federal system. Interestingly enough, if you look at [U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin] Scalia’s majority opinion, he says in a footnote that the court was not deciding whether the opinion invalidates the federal sentencing guidelines. He specifically left that open. Since then a number of circuit courts of appeal have been confronted with that question squarely, and have split. The [U.S.] Supreme Court, to its credit, has recognized that a chaotic situation now exists and has granted cert. in two cases — U.S. v. Booker and U.S. v. Fanfan — both [which were] scheduled for oral arguments on Oct. 4. I think everybody on all sides of the issue is hoping for a quick and clear-headed resolution.

NEIH: Until that time, what is the stance of the U.S. Attorney’s Office with respect to the federal sentencing guidelines?

Corrente: The entire Department of Justice is taking a unified position. We are of the view that Blakely does not invalidate the federal sentencing guidelines and we are conducting ourselves as if Blakely did apply. In some instances, that means charging additional facts in indictments, and a variety of courts have taken different positions about how they are going to address this. Some have opted in favor of bifurcated proceedings, where there is one proceeding dealing with the guilt or innocence of the defendant, then a separate proceeding on some of the sentencing factors.

NEIH: Most of your experience has been as a business litigator. How does that translate to your new role as the state’s top federal prosecutor?

Corrente: This office is populated by many career prosecutors, and I don’t think any of them need to learn criminal law from me. They’ve been doing this for a long time and will continue to do so. I don’t see my relative lack of experience on the criminal side of things as a serious detriment to the office. An awful lot of what I’m doing is supervisory and policy-oriented.

NEIH. With respect to policies, you stated your office’s highest priority will be coordinating the anti-terrorism efforts of federal, state and local agencies in Rhode Island. What does that entail?

Corrente: What that entails is daily contact with all of the different agencies that are involved in the effort, to coordinate what people are doing and what people are finding out. We try, to the extent that we can, to serve as a hub for those agencies and for those efforts.

NEIH: Beyond antiterrorism intelligence work, what will be the targets of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Rhode Island?

Corrente: One of the other priorities that I have laid out for the office during my tenure is the Project Safe Neighborhoods initiative, which really targets a two-headed monster: drugs and guns. In addition to that, I mentioned public corruption as a specific target, as well as environmental enforcement.

NEIH: Why was environmental protection chosen as one of your priorities?

Corrente: Given the unique, natural resources that Rhode Island has to offer, and the importance of those resources within the state, I think it’s helpful every so often to remind people that the U.S. Attorney’s Office, along with the state Attorney General’s Office and the EPA on the federal side, all together play an active role in protecting those resources. There has been a long history of cooperation between the federal government and the states on those issues, and I just want to remind everybody that that’s not lost in the shuffle by any means. In the last decade or so, we have collected in excess of $60 million in fines and clean-up costs.

NEIH: What, if anything, can be done about Rhode Island’s track record for public corruption?

Corrente: That’s another broad topic. I can’t get into pending investigations or even the existence or lack of existence of those investigations. I can say, generally speaking, that we’re going to devote all of the resources, all the attention and all the energy that we can to do everything that’s within the power of this office to make sure that we’re getting out there proactively and finding these kinds of deals and then prosecuting them as aggressively as we can.

NEIH: You take being a political unknown as a compliment. How do you hope to remain that way?

Corrente: Pretty much the same way I’ve gotten here. I have never really been known as a political figure. I’ve even tried to conduct my practice, up to now, in such a way that politics were never a factor in what I was doing. And I hope to be able to conduct myself in this office in the same way.

NEIH: Do you hope to effect a change in the culture of the office?

Corrente: What I want to instill – and I don’t mean to suggest this is a departure from past practice – is an atmosphere where we’re cognizant of playing by the rules and observing the ethical boundaries that guide us here. It’s critically important that the people who deal with this office know that they can trust us implicitly when we tell them something, whether it be the defense bar or the courts. I want it to be known as an apolitical office. I don’t want anybody to think that because I was appointed by X or Y, that that’s going to have a bearing on how we run the office. And I want the message to be out there that this is not a soft or lazy government office. We’re just not going to be outworked by anybody.

[A version of this interview originally appeared in Rhode Island Lawyers Weekly, a sister publication of New England In-House.]

Questions or comments may be directed to the writer at lbruno@lawyersweekly.com.

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